Leary and Company (Leary's Bookstore) archives
Held at: Temple University Libraries Special Collections Research Center [Contact Us]
This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the Temple University Libraries Special Collections Research Center. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in their reading room, and not digitally available through the web.
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In 1836, at the age of 20, William A. Leary, a small-time book seller in Baltimore, journeyed to Philadelphia. He established a sidewalk book stall on North Second Street which attracted a large clientele because of its close proximity to the Old Market. As business prospered, Leary moved to several different locations, finally settling at 138 North Second Street which was right next door to the Camel Tavern, a landmark in Philadelphia.
Leary’s Book Store specialized in selling inexpensive, second-hand books. From the outset, the store adhered to a non-pressure sales approach. Leary’s employees were instructed to leave patrons alone unless their assistance was requested. The idea behind this practice was that customers would actually discover and purchase more books while they freely searched through the stacks and shelves. Because of its large inventory and cheap prices, Leary’s developed a national reputation and attracted prominent figures such as U.S. Senator Charles Sumner and writer/reformer Horace Greeley.
In addition to selling and buying books, Leary expanded his base of operations by venturing into the publishing business in the 1850s. He formed a publishing company known as Leary and Getz which produced small, hard-cover pocket books called "Grandfather Leary’s Premium Toy Books" and published books sold primarily by vendors called "Leary’s Bricks." Leary and Getz published several best selling books such as Dr Buchan’s Family Physician, The Lives of Remarkable and Eccentric Characters, and Military Heroes of the War of 1812.
William A. Leary, Jr. took over the book store business from his father in 1865. He moved his establishment in 1868 to the southeast corner of 5th and Walnut Streets, an area bustling with lawyers, professionals, and tourists visiting Independence Hall. An illness contracted during the Civil War greatly hindered Leary’s strength in running his store. He placed a help wanted advertisement in the newspaper to which Edwin S. Stuart, a 13 year old boy, responded. Stuart was hired as an errand boy who delivered books in a wheelbarrow. As Leary Jr.’s health deteriorated, Stuart became manager of the establishment. Stuart continued in that role after Leary, Jr. died in 1874. On January 1, 1876, Stuart and Charles Mann purchased the store from the Leary Estate. Despite the change in ownership, the name of the store remained the same.
After acquiring Leary’s, Stuart decided to move the store to a better location. City Hall was about to relocate to Broad and Market Streets and a new post office was about to be built along 9th Street. Desiring to take advantage of this westward shift, Stuart purchased the property of T. J. Perkins and Co., a dry goods house located at 9 South Ninth Street. After some refurbishments were made to the edifice, Leary’s moved into its new home in September 1877.
Hoping to attract the attention of tens of thousands of visitors to the Centennial Exhibition, Stuart made what turned out to be a monumental decision regarding the interior and the exterior of his store. He decided to have Carl Spitweg’s (1808-1885) painting "Der Bucherworm" (The Book Worm) painted on a stained glass on the second floor of the store and a much larger version of the painting on the outside of the building. The painting fully captured the essence and atmosphere of Leary’s. It featured a man standing on a step ladder intensely reading a book in his left hand while holding an open book in his right hand. The man also had a book tucked under his elbow and another volume lodged between his knees for quick reference. The Book Worm image very quickly became Leary’s trademark.
When Stuart decided to pursue a political career (he served as mayor of Philadelphia from 1891-1895 and as governor of Pennsylvania from 1907-1911), he relinquished managerial duties to his brother and partner William H. Stuart. The Stuart’s continued Leary’s non-pressure approach but added several new techniques to attract additional business. Countering the trend of most book sellers at the time who dealt only in rare books or in collector’s items, Leary’s bought and sold mass quantities of second-hand volumes. The store also did an extensive amount of business in selling publishers remainders. It developed a reputation as the store of choice to sell used books. The store aggressively purchased the personal libraries of large book collectors throughout the country, such as the collection of Dr. J. G. Armstrong of Atlanta, Georgia, whose volumes were valued at $10,000 and Supreme Court Justice Stephen Field’s library for $12,000. The Stuarts also broke from Leary’s tradition by selling brand new books on their shelves.
Under the Stuart’s management, Leary’s became one of the largest old book dealers in the world. It also was represented as the oldest, continuously active, book store in the United States. During a legal confrontation with their neighbor Gimbels in the mid-1920s, the Stuarts decided to modernize their store. While the building underwent renovations, Leary’s temporarily relocated to 1214 Arch Street where it conducted business from November 1, 1925, to April 1927. On April 4, 1927, the new store opened for business. The new facility featured 7 floors, a basement, and a sub-basement all of which eased over-crowding in the stacks and shelves and eliminated the need for a separate warehouse building.
Leary’s business continued to expand as the twentieth century progressed. In 1949, for instance, the store contained more than 900,000 volumes of books, spanning 106 departments which covered 6 and 6/10 miles of shelves. It sold nearly 40,000 books per week and obtained an average of 37,000 second-hand books per week. It had the inventory and ambiance of a library. The store became an essential stopping place for literary figures around the world. One of the most prominent customers of the store was Christopher Morley, who used Leary’s as a setting for one of his chapters of the Haunted Book Shop.
While the Bible, dictionaries, and Horatio Alger novels represented some of the big sellers at Leary’s, there were many instances where a major find took place in the store. One customer purchased a first edition of Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets for 10 cents and quickly resold it for $5,000. Leary’s loved the publicity generated from those type of discoveries. Occasionally, books and documents of great historical significance were discovered at Leary’s. A book written by one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence was found in the store. The author not only signed the volume, but presented it to George Washington, who, in turn, also autographed it as well. The greatest discovery at Leary’s took place in December 1968 when a "lost" copy of the Declaration of Independence was found in an unopened crate. This copy represented one of the first printings done on July 4, 1776, by John Dunlap, the official printer for the Continental Congress. It was eventually auctioned off for $404,000.
As more people moved to and shopped in the suburbs, Leary’s customer base declined. W. Stuart Emmons, grandson of William H. Stuart, focused most of his attention on his oil business rather than on the book store. Consequently, Leary’s went out of business on November 20, 1968. The books from the store were auctioned off by Samuel T. Freeman in 1969.
The Leary and Company archives, dating from the 1840s to 1969, is divided into two series, "Records" and "Bound Volumes/Ledgers." The first series, Records, consists of boxes which are arranged chronologically and by subject matter. There are specific boxes devoted to financial statements, trial balances, and income tax material. Other boxes contain general business correspondence, photographs of the interior and exterior of the store, information pertaining to the legal dispute with Gimbels, catalogues and school books published by Leary’s, and secondary newspaper and magazine articles written about the store. The second portion of the collection consists of bound volumes pertaining to Leary’s business dealings. This includes general ledgers, cash books, payroll books, accounts receivable, mail orders journals, and scrapbooks of advertisements taken out by the store.
This manuscript collection was a gift to Temple University by the president of Leary’s Book Store, Inc., W. Stuart Emmons (died l979), in July 1976 (physical pickup took place on 14 July and 23 July 1976). Additional documents, the Leary name and the rights, title and interest in the Leary trademark "Book Worm", were purchased by the George S. MacManus Company, Inc.
The creation of the electronic guide for this collection was made possible through generous funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, administered through the Council on Library and Information Resources’ “Cataloging Hidden Special Collections and Archives” Project.
Finding aid entered into the Archivists' Toolkit by Garrett Boos.
- Temple University Libraries Special Collections Research Center
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- Finding aid prepared by Andrew Harrison
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- The creation of the electronic guide for this collection was made possible through generous funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, administered through the Council on Library and Information Resources’ “Cataloging Hidden Special Collections and Archives” Project. Finding aid entered into the Archivists' Toolkit by Garrett Boos.
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